Editor's note: Before "Nightflower" officially joined New World Notes as a regular contributor, she sent this smart essay as a guest post -- opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the management etc. - Hamlet Au
During an extended break from Second Life, Lord of the Rings Online acted as my virtual world methadone program. Leaving the delightfully anarchic culture of SL for the sturctured, purpose-driven community of an MMOG was enough to give me a dizzying case of virtual world whiplash. But in making the switch, I made a shocking discovery -- I made friends, found community, and had a blast in LOTRO far sooner than I ever did in Second Life.
The reason? LOTRO has formalized social groups that serve to integrate new players into the game, train them to thrive, and introduce them to friends for the journey. These groups are commonly known as guilds in virtually every MMOG available today. They are nearly universal to the genre because they work, leveraging the power of the player base to build community.
No, I'm not advocating that Linden Lab institute a formal guild system - because they don't need to. The Second Life social landscape is already a beautiful mosaic of tight-knit tribes and affinity groups. The problem is that is that these vibrant communities are completely invisible to those who are new to our world. To overcome that challenge, I believe there are three ways that Linden Lab could learn from the the ways MMOGs leverage guilds to improve the new user experience - without altering the fundamental character of the world we love so well:
1. Establish Paths to Communities
While the central activity for MMOG gamers is killing critters, players also flock to a wide range of specialized activities around which guilds often form, like playing music or exploring the world. The myriad options that SL offers utterly dwarf those available in any other MMOG - yet therein lies the irony. Second Life loses new signups every day because they can’t find things to do or people with whom they can connect. If the Lab could quickly connect new users with vibrant affinity groups, they would largely relieve themselves of the task of orientation.
Here's an example. Only a couple of days after returning to SL, a dear friend turned me on to the strangely addictive pursuit of breeding Petable Turtles. But after getting me started, my mentor promptly went on vacation, leaving me utterly clueless. Fortunately, as a long-time SL resident, I knew just what to do. I joined the largest turtle-related groups, asked for advice, and became part of the community. Not only did I get all the help I needed, but I quickly made serveral new friends.
A new resident coming from FarmVille might find a perfect home in the turtle community - but only if she knows it exists and knows how to access the tribe. By establishing a simple mechanism for new players to see what kinds of communities are available, the Lab could immediately connect them with compelling reasons for building a Second Life.
2. Motivate Ongoing Recruitment
Here's a major stumbling block - many SL communities have no desire reach out to new players and invest the time needed to integrate them into their culture. While few groups wouldn't want a wider, more vibrant community, they just don't want it bad enough to take the relatively drastic step of actively recruiting new members. Given the labor involved, many SL communities simply aren't sufficiently motivated to recruit.
Likewise, when a guild recruits a new player, they are taking on a huge chore - basically teaching them how to play the game. But realizing that guilds are their most effective community building tool, MMOGs aren’t afraid to lay on the love to keep them motivated to grow. Special housing, pretty horses, and group chat that works are just a few of the incentives MMOGs offer guilds in recognition of their value.
So what would it take for The Lab to motivate insular SL communities to actively reach out to new residents? Really, the more important question is "what would it be worth?" What would it be worth to have the most creative, dynamic, eclectic band of communities in the history of the internet take an active role in the SL new user experience? Would it be worth land? Linden Dollars? Group chat that works? It would be worth all that and more.
3. Recognize Thriving Tribes
In MMOGs, guild membership is a matter of pride. Being part of a guild is a statement about who you are and what you value in the game. To their credit, MMOGs do whatever they can to advance this attitude of pride and ownership through formal recognition, both ingame an on the web.
So what would that look like in Second Life? Well, adding a "communities" feature to the HOME tab in the viewer, or doing feature stories on vibrant user groups in the new newsletter would be a start. But the real work that the Lab needs to undertake is a true paradigm shift, in which they realize that the cantankerous user groups constantly screaming to be heard are actually their greatest asset. Against the emergence of so many competing 3D social platforms, the only thing that sets SL apart is its dedicated userbase. Until the Lab actively and publicly embraces not only content creators and fashionistas, but the Steampunks, the Goreans, the Nekos, and every community in between, the greatest resource they could bring to bear against the new user experience will remain untapped.
I started off by saying that I had fun and found community faster in LOTRO than I did in the world that Rosedale built. But lest anyone misunderstand, I need to close by saying that the little slice of home I've carved out in Second Life is infinitely more satisfying. And for me, it has all been about community... the same kind of community virtually every new signup is hoping to find.
If we must look to the land of hobbits to learn how to bring more people into our tribe, so be it.
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About the author
Nightflower is currently dividing her time between writing, raising virtual reptiles, and enjoying the new expansion just released for Lord of the Rings Online. You can read more at her blog, NightLight. Contact her on Twitter @nightflowerSL, and via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.